Friday, 30 January 2015

The Importance of Shadowrun

I played a lot of Shadowrun as a teenager. Christ, I played a lot of Shadowrun. I played a shark shaman from Hawai'i with a big tattoo of a hammerhead on his back. I played a minotaur from Corsica who was a member of the Corsican mafia. I played a hobgoblin jihadist from the Middle East. (Racial sensitivity was not my strong point, and nor was it the game's.) I played a street samurai who covered himself in jaguarskin tattoos. A friend of mine played a dwarf street samurai called Yosemite Sam and another friend played his troll sidekick, Bisskit. Another friend's younger brother played a physical adept who looked like Louise from the pop group Eternal. His older brother wouldn't let him smoke pot with the rest of us, and temper tantrums, sometimes escalating into full-scale fights, inevitably resulted. Once we got drunk eating brandy chocolates playing the game - I think it was shortly after Christmas. We were awful, greasy, spotty, horrible 14-15 year old boys, who went to an all-boys state school and consequently knew very few girls. We were as hateful as any group of teenage boys can be. But Shadowrun provided us with some light relief from our predicament(s), so it will always have a special place in my heart.

I've written before about Shadowrun and considered view on it is this: Shadowrun is the most fundamentally awful and crass idea ever invented, a crime against gaming and literature and culture in general, and yet I love it. I love it because I love fantasy fiction and I love cyberpunk, and despite the fact that ice cream and steak really shouldn't, no really shouldn't, go together, in the case of Shadowrun they mysteriously do. Through some weird alchemy, a William Gibson novel which has elves and orcs running around in it works. Or rather, it doesn't work - it fails terribly - but in such a charming way that it doesn't matter even slightly.

The activities we engage in as teenagers have a great deal of value. I don't want to credit Shadowrun with much at all - in fact that era of my life was full of motivation-draining and very mildly malign influences of which that game was one. (I'm sure I could currently be the Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge or Harvard Law School or something if only I'd applied myself, rather than spending so much time pretending to be an elf, commanding Space Marines, drawing pictures of people killing each other with medieval weapons, or writing abortive attempts at fantasy novels.) Yet I will credit it with this: it filled my weekends at that age, that and playing cricket. And the importance of that shouldn't be underrated; being a 14 year old boy is pretty awful, even if you've been well brought-up and have friends - you are pestilent, uncoordinated, socially inept and just about old enough to know it - and hobbies are little rays of sunshine, little zones of self-expression and creativity and emotion amongst the general atmosphere of hangdog weirdness. They give you space to aspire, and dream beyond the dull grey skies and dull grey lifepaths of Northern English suburbs. So let me raise a glass to you, Shadowrun, and wish you good health. May you long provide solace to spotty teenagers everywhere, especially the ones who go to single-sex schools.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Random Encounters in New Troy: The Forest of Broceliande

This is a random encounter table for the Forest of Broceliande. All random encounter tables for New Troy have two columns, with some rough correlation between results for New Troy and Faerie; occasionally Faeries are encountered in New Troy, and humans are encountered in Faerie. The basic principle is that Faerie is generally where high adventure happens, but there is always going to be slippage.

I've only included stats were necessary; I intend to expand on methods for creating "generic faerie commoners", the Questing Beast, and the role of the Dvergrs in future entries.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Effusing About Writing

If for no other reason that this passage made me smile both for its humour and its sheer storytelling and stylistic craft, here's James Ellroy from page 180-181 of My Dark Places:

Bunny West grew up rich in Pasadena. She married a man named Robert Krauch in the late '50s and had four kids by him. Krach was a reporter for the LA Herald. His father was a big cheese with the paper.

Bunny West was beautiful. She was kindhearted and pathologically cheerful. Robert Krauch was possessive and ill-tempered. Everybody liked Bunny. Nobody liked Robert.

The Krauches moved to Playa del Rey in the early '60s. They bought a beautiful beachfront home. Robert developed a bad reputation. People considered him eccentric. He rode his bicycle around Playa del Rey and put out hostile vibes.

Marina del Rey was the new hip enclave. It was just a mile north of Playa. It featured boat slips and yachts and lots of groovy bars and restaurants.

Charlie Brown's opened up in '68. It was a freewheeling bar and steakhouse with a swinging clientele. The waitresses were all stone foxes. They wore lowcut tops and short dresses. The manager dug the LA Lakers. He sucked up to the players and got his girls dates with them. Charlie Brown's became a big sports hangout.

Bunny Krauch got a waitress job there. She worked the late shift and quit around midnight. She started living a separate life away from her family.

Charlie Brown's swung hard. The waitresses were always dodging passes. Bunny Krauch got pawed and groped every night.

This Don guy was the King of the Gropers. He worked as a bug exterminator. He was unattractive and well into his fifties. The waitresses loathed him. He became Bunny Krauch's lover. Nobody could figure them out.

Don was 20 years older than Bunny. Don was disgusting. Don was a flagrant ass-pincher and a drunk.

The affair went on for three years. Don and Bunny met at a motel on Admiralty Way. They met at Charlie Brown's and other restaurants in the Marina. They were not discreet. Bunny's friends knew the score. Robert Krauch did not.

Robert got a vasectomy. Bunny said she wanted to stay on the pill. The pill regulated her period.

Robert did not get the picture.

Imagine 351 pages of that and you get a good idea about how addictive reading James Ellroy can become.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Jamesian and the Lovecraftian

HP Lovecraft is, in a sense, a modernist writer. Not stylistically, but philosophically: the horror is senseless, unknowable, beyond our ken. It's not ghosts from beyond the grave, devils, and curses. It's alien gods with strange motives, indifferent to human suffering. In this sense Lovecraft is a classic post-WWI writer. On the one hand, the message is that what was once certain no longer is. On the other, the message is that you can create something completely new. No more devils: let's talk Cthulhu.

This is what makes Lovecraft particularly interesting, of course, but what's a strength can just as much be a weakness. What you gain in otherworldly, alienating horror, you lose in cultural resonance. You really notice this when you read MR James, who was probably the last great pre-modern horror writer - in the sense of having Victorian rather than modernist sensibilities. James's universe is one where things make a kind of sense, even though he was expert in keeping things hidden. The ghosts, spirits, demons who his protagonists encounter are products of Christianity; it's a vicious, vengeful, Old Testament Christianity, where sins are punished rather than forgiven, and it's a Christianity which comes more from the Apocrypha (The Testament of Solomon, Knights Templar, medieval Jewish magic) than from the Bible, but it's still a universe people from the Western world are familiar with. It's in many ways a quid pro quo universe - you get what's coming to you - but more importantly it's one that's horribly familiar, especially if you have had a church upbringing. Words like Baphomet, Satan, King Solomon, hell, the afterlife, altar, pew, prayer book, etc., have meanings to us which extend beyond the immediate story or what the writer can conjur up, and reach into our shared Judeo-Christian cultural past. This gives them a sense of weight, a sense of meaning, that made-up words like Hastur do not.

This capacity for cultural resonance is underrated. You don't have to be religious to appreciate that certain shared myths, stories and artefacts can take on a sense or feeling of the numinous, despite your own agnosticism: they get it not from the fact that they're true, or genuinely 'spiritual', but from something deeper - they've been around a long time, thousands of years in some cases, and when something is around a long time, it tends to grow roots. The Testament of Solomon is spellbinding because these are stories which have their roots in extreme antiquity, and something that old can't help but feel significant. And if you really object to accepting that is true of Judeo-Christian religions, it is just as much true of Greek myth, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, which also have that quality of numinousness arising from their great age and survival, and the meanings and connotations that inevitably accrue whenever something is truly old.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Hexmapping in New Troy: Example (Hex 0101)

Each 1-mile hex on the New Troy map has a mirror-image in Faerie, yet the Faerie equivalent is 6 miles. What this chiefly means is that each hex in New Troy has one interesting location, whereas each Faerie hex has at least three - one or all of which are warped refractions of the New Troy counterpart. Let's produce an example.

Hex 0101, right up in the top left. A mixture of hills and meadow, some woodland. It contains the hill pond, an isolated pool nestled among hilltops with deep, dark water inhabited by murky green loaches. Long ago 33 bastard children were drowned in the pool by a Lord of Kinkernadon who was warned by a witch that a child of the devil would cause his death. These loaches have drawn up something of the sorrow and pain of those children, and they communicate the children's spirits' desire for revenge on the Lord of Kinkernadon's descendants. They will grant a limited wish in return for the body of such a descendant being delivered into the pool.

In Faerie, the pool is home to Mournful Nel, a Faerie resembling an old woman, who sits naked on the bank dangling her legs in the water and singing sad songs. She is forever unhappy, though she does not know why; anyone who can provide her with a brief moment or two of solace she will provide with three boons: remove curse, cure blindness, and cure disease, which she will bestow any time they are needed within a year and a day.

In Faerie, there are two other locations in the hex:

The rock doves' nest. Two pucks, a couple, who transformed themselves into rock doves but have forgotten how to turn themselves back again. They need a Faerie Noble to return them to their original forms, but are terrified of the consequences of this and need representatives to act as supplicants on their behalf.

The crack in the earth. A crevasse in woodland inhabited by a band of brocks, man-sized talking badgers. They are bad tempered but not necessarily aggressive; young ones may be tempted into adventuring, and make excellent tunnellers. They are fierce rivals of a pack of Hounds of Annwn living in another nearby hex. (Brock: 3 HD, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG d6 (does double damage on a successful to hit roll of 18+), Move 150).

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Faerie Commoners

Faerie commoners are the chief inhabitants of Faerie. They are subdivided into many different types, but a method of unique 'generic' faerie generation will also be provided. Some examples of common sub-types are as follows:

Bogle: A malicious being which enjoys tormenting or vexing humankind with tricks and curses. Diminutive and wrinkled. HD 1+1, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG 1d4, Move 120. Spell-like abilities: Putrefy Food and Drink 3/day, Invisibility 3/day, Sanctuary 1/day, Pass Without Trace at will, Curse 1/week, Dancing Lights 3/day, Fools Gold 1/week, Faerie Fire 3/day, Push 3/day.

Boggart: A genius loci, guardian of a certain obscure location, who will always try to scare away or deter visitors with visions, plagues, and so forth. Usually ugly, with long arms, though may take on any appearance. HD 2, AC 5, #ATT 2, DMG d3/d3, Move 120. Spell-like abilities: Fear 1/day, Insect Plague 1/week, Trip 1/day, Scare 3/day, Audible Glamer 3/day, Spectral Force 1/day.

Nymph: A beautiful nature spirit, male or female, which seduces human beings for love and veneration. Requires complete devotion but offers only flightiness, cuckoldry and heartbreak in return. HD 1, AC 8, #ATT 1, DMG d3, Move 120. Spell-like abilities: Charm Person 1/day (permanent effect, only broken by a Limited Wish or Wish spell), Pass Without Trace at will, Obscurement 1/day, Call Woodland Beings 1/week.

Faun: Fun-loving half-goat which may guide the lost or lead them to destruction on a whim - but only after enjoying feasts and fucking beforehand. Roll a d6 or toss a coin to determine whether the Fauns are in a helpful or malevolent mood. HD 2+2, AC 5, #ATT 2, DMG d6/d6 (headbutt and weapon), Move 150. Spell-like abilities: Suggestion 3/day, Charm Person 1/day, Animal Summoning I 1/day, Otto's Irresistible Dance 3/day.

Redcap: Murderous sadists who dye their caps in the blood of those they maim or kill. They are said to be impossible to outrun, and appear as wizened old men, often armed with a pike. HD 2+1, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG d8, Move 180. Spell-like abilities: Jump at will, Darkness, 15' Radius 3/day.

Knocker: Mean-spirited thieves and murderers who visit mines, workshops and other sites of industry to steal items and arrange "accidents". Small, brown, and hateful. HD 1/2, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG d3, Move 120. Spell-like abilities: Invisibility 3/day, Pass Wall at will, Darkness, 15' Radius 3/day, Stone Shape 1/day, Conjure Earth Elemental 1/week (requires 6 knockers acting in unison), Earthquake 1/week (requires 3 knockers acting in unison)

Morgen: Siren-like beings who lure men to their deaths in deep lakes and ponds with their beauty and powers of persuasion. HD 1, AC 7, #ATT 1, DMG d6, Move 180 (swim). Spell-like abilities: Suggestion 1/day, Raise/Lower Water (as 7th level cleric) 1/day.

Pwca/Puck: Shapechangers who may be helpful or not depending on the day, location of the moon, temperature, direction of the wind, and so forth - but may be more likely to be benevolent if given a gift which is a genuine sacrifice. Can transform into a hare, stag, horse, dog, goat, boar or bear, with stats as appropriate, at will: the animal always has jet black fur. HD 3, AC 5, #ATT 1, DMG d6, Move 120. (Stats refer to human form: in animal form the animal stats apply, except for the HD.) Spell-like abilities: Push 3/day, Blink 3/day, Polymorph Other 1/day, Cure Disease 1/day, Cure Blindness 1/day, Purefy Food & Drink at will, Neutralize Poison at will, Confusion 1/day, Darkness 15' Radius 3/day, Light 3/day.

Cailleach: Hag-like instantiation of winter. Carries a stave and has the power to bend the weather and geography to her will. HD 7+7, AC 2, #ATT 1, DMG d8+8, Move 120. Spell-like abilities: Control Weather 1/week, Earthquake 1/week, Stone Tell at will, Weather Summoning 1/week, Stone Shape at will, Call Lightning 1/day, Cone of Cold 1/day, Wall of Ice 1/day, Wind Walk 1/day, Ice Storm 1/day, Move Earth 1/week.

Woodwose: A bearded, forest "wild man" with fierce eyes, all wiry muscle and sinew. They rule the deep forests with fear, and force all the beasts that live in them to do their will as chattels. HD 4, AC 5, #ATT 2, DMG d6/d6, Move 120. Spell-like abilities: Pass Without Trace 3/day, Conjure Animals 1/week, Animal Summoning III 1/ day, Call Woodland Beings 1/day, Wall of Thorns 1/day, Pass Plant 1/day, Barkskin 1/day, Plant Growth 1/day, Sticks to Snakes 1/day, Animal Growth 1/day,

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Faerie Nobles

Faeries Nobles are the rulers of a Faerie sidhe. They are beings of great power and even greater caprice.

Faerie Noble

HD 7-12 (d6+6)
AC As armour +4
# ATT 2
DMG As weapon +4

Faerie Nobles always have one magical weapon, and three items of magical jewellery, randomly determined.

All Faerie Nobles can cast a geas or quest, and a limited wish, one each per week.

All Faerie Nobles can choose at any time to reveal their full power, acting as a fear spell.

All Faerie Nobles have an additional d6+3 thrice-daily spells, d3+3 daily spells, ad d3 weekly spells. These are generated randomly using the following table:

Like all Faeries, Faerie Nobles change their appearance according to the season, growing pale and flint-eyed in winter, or youthful and green in spring. In winter any reaction dice rolled for a Faerie Noble is at -2; in autumn, -1; in summer +1; and in spring +2.

[Art by Roger Garland]

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Reconceptualising the Morale Check

One of my pet peeves in RPGs is unrealistic monster behaviour in combat - by which I generally mean, fighting to the death. By no means all DMs do this, and certainly not all the time, but I'm sure anyone reading this will have experienced a combat in a game in which all the orcs/goblins/kobolds/bandits/whatevers carry on a combat until the bitter end and they are all dead or incapacitated. I generally consider it something of a warning sign: it indicates the DM isn't really thinking about the game properly - unless there is some good reason for it.

The morale check is a game mechanic in D&D that is designed to remedy this, but I've always found it a bit of a blunt instrument, contingent on abstractions (25% casualties, half hit points lost, etc.) which may not be appropriate in a given situation.

My general approach these days is not to bother with morale checks at all, but just have monsters flee (or surrender) based on what seems appropriate. I try as best I can to assess, subjectively, what in a given instance would likely happen, depending on what kind of creature is involved and what is at stake. Put your mind into that of an orc, for example: you are mean-spirited, malicious and above all self-centred. While patrolling around the countryside with a band of fellow orcs, you come across a party of adventurers who are heavily armed, and one of them looks like a magician. A fight ensues and one of your comrades is felled by a magic missile. What incentive is there to carry on the skirmish? There is a good chance you'll die, and there does not seem to be a huge benefit to continuing - certainly not outweighing the chance of death. Wouldn't you aim to disengage?

As well as being realistic, of course, this approach is generally also better for the game. Monsters fleeing presents players with interesting choices: to follow or not to follow? It also presents the DM with interesting options: how do the monsters go about seeking revenge or otherwise reacting to the defeat?

What always surprises and interests me about military history is how comparatively few casualties tend to arise from battles and skirmishes when set against what one might expect - especially when it comes to what you might think of as the bloodiest part of a medieval battle, melee. Speaking in general terms, in most medieval battles the large part of the killing tended to take place in routs, when there was a disorderly retreat, and/or subsequent massacres of captives. Taking just one example, the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 was one of the major military engagements of the Hundred Years' War and a shattering blow to the French psyche, yet out of what seems to have been around 20,000 participants on both sides, after a hard day of fighting (at the very least 4-5 hours) there appear to have been something like a total of 3,000 men killed and wounded. Assuming the normal ratio of wounded-to-killed soldiers in a battle, that would be something around 1,000 deaths, or 5% of the total combatants. That would simply be unrealistic if we imagine the men involved going at it hammer-and-tongs like a typical D&D fight. Other examples will produce varying figures, of course, but it was pretty rare for a medieval battle to even produce casualty rates of 25% of total combatants, let alone anywhere near 100%. (The bloodiest battle ever to take place on English soil, the Battle of Towton, during the Wars of the Roses, is said to have produced 28,000 dead, which was approximately half the total number of combatants - but this is believed to have been exaggerated, most were killed during the Lancastrian rout, and the figure includes many murdered captives.)

In any event, this is surely what one would expect when you forget about Hollywood and put yourself into the mindset of somebody in a battle. What's your first priority? Survival. What's your second? Not being captured. What's your third? Winning. I would expect that "killing the enemy" is fairly far down the list. Battle casualty figures bear that out: what happens when 20,000 men gather together with the aim firstly of survival, secondly of not being captured, and third winning? Most of them end up surviving, by hook or by crook.

But that's only half of the issue, because of course - as I've alluded to - a rout will often end up in slaughter of the losing side. Loss of discipline and disorganisation is not a great recipe for survival. In fact it's more or less the worst thing that could happen to an army. The best thing after it becomes clear that victory is not on the cards is orderly retreat.

So I wonder whether it would be an interesting experiment to interpret the morale check more broadly, and it's as follows (assuming a 1 minute round):

When the DM rolls a morale check, a successful result means the monsters either remain in the fight, or make an organised retreat. A failed check which is better than half the monsters' morale results in an organised retreat. A failed check which is less than half the monsters' morale results in a rout.

An organised retreat takes one round, during which time the monsters are open to a bonus attack from any PCs within range, but at a +4 bonus to their AC. They then have a free turn of movement to retreat.

During a rout, the monsters are open to a bonus attack from any PCs within range which hits automatically. After this, they may flee, but initiative applies in the normal way.

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Writer Writes

I'm not a wannabe fiction writer. I was once, a long time ago, but I reconciled myself to the fact that I don't have the patience, nor probably the talent. I'm a good writer, but I'm not a good storyteller. I'm good at thinking up ideas, and good at writing scenes, but fitting everything together into an interesting plot is beyond me. So just as I'll never open the bowling for the England cricket team, date any of the female members of S Club 7 or Eternal, or discover a new species of animal, nor will I ever fulfil my other adolescent dream of being a best-selling fantasy writer.

When I was a teenager, though, I read quite a lot of books about creative writing, in an effort to improve. Most of these are pretty useless, but two that stood out to me as being well worth reading are Stephen King's On Writing and Ben Bova's The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells. As is often the case, the people who know what they're talking about are genre writers, rather than high-falutin' literary types.

The advice both men had that really stood out to me is this: if you want to be "a creative" of whatever stripe, stop dicking around and just do it. Ben Bova boils this down to the simplest and most efficient statement possible: if you want to be a writer, write. A writer writes. (He may have been paraphrasing Harlan Ellison.)

King's advice is probably more extreme, and it's this: if you're not doing it already - writing every day simply for the love of it - you're probably never going to make it. If you're forcing yourself to write every day, so that it feels like a chore, it's a bad sign. Writers who end up being succesful are very often the ones who simply have to write every day, and it's the not writing that feels like work. (Adam Roberts said something like this once at a reading I was at; when he's writing he often gets into a fugue state in which hours of complete bliss feel like they're passing by in the blink of an eye.)

Anyway, the point is, thinking is overrated. In life, if you want to do something, do it. Writing my PhD thesis taught me this as much as anything: what you create will never be as good as what you imagine, but those 100,000 words aren't going to write themselves, so you'd better pull your finger out of your arse and get typing. I've, eventually, managed to do the same thing with Yoon-Suin: the thing has been written only because I've spent god-knows-how-many-hours sitting down and just bloody writing it.

So to anyone reading this who is thinking of writing a game or an adventure or a campaign setting or anything else, let this be my message to you: if you want to write a game or an aventure or a campaign setting or anything else, then write a game or an adventure or a campaign setting or anything else. It's not quite as pithy as "If you want to be a writer, write", but we can't all be Harlan Ellison, can we?

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Fetch

It is said that sometimes the nobles of a Faerie shee decide to send a double of a human inhabitant of New Troy to replace the original. It is not known to what purpose they do this, but it is believed that, every so often, a 'real' person is spirited away somewhere and replaced by such a wraith, or fetch. The fetch is like the original in every way, completely identical, with all of his or her knowledge, character traits, and flaws. Underneath it is a cipher, and a malevolent one at that, but even close family members will be unable to tell there is anything amiss.

Everybody in New Troy knows, therefore, that if one sees one's double or twin - only ever when one is alone; only ever when it is dusk or early morning; only ever in some isolated spot where no cry for help will be heard - it can only mean that this is a fetch and shortly one will lose the life one had, and be replaced by this malicious being. It will soon be living as you did, amongst your friends and loved ones, and all you know of your fate, whatever it is, is that you will never see them again.